Women entrepreneurs are innovating everywhere, every day across Canada. Current policies and discourse that equate innovation solely with advances in technology exclude much of women entrepreneurs’ innovations. The result is a lack of recognition of the significant contribution that women entrepreneurs make to Canada’s innovation and a lack of access to funding to increase their innovation capacity and implementation. This needs to change as women-led businesses today represent 50% of all new businesses (BDC, 2017). Among all small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), 47% are entirely or partly owned by women (Statistics Canada, 2012). Businesses owned by women entrepreneurs make significant contributions to the Canadian economy. Although women-led businesses tend to be smaller than men-led businesses in general, they create more jobs (Statistics Canada, 2012) and have higher survival rates (Benavides-Espinosa and Mohedano-Suanes, 2012; Statistics Canada, 2012).
Contrary to the current discourse around science and technology and funding criteria, innovation is much broader, as defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and accepted by Canada 2020’s work as the “implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization or external relations” (2005, p.46). As a consequence, an innovation can represent many things in an organization. However, in Canada, innovation is often equated to goods, rather than services, and especially in science and technologies. Most of the businesses started by women entrepreneurs are concentrated in the service sector (90%, according to TD Economics, 2015) and women are underrepresented in the science and technology sector (Bahmani & al., 2012; Move the Dial, 2017). This explains partly why women entrepreneurs are seen as less innovative and benefit less from funding opportunities that are concentrated for innovation in high technology as reported by Canada 2020.
In our study, we set out to better understand how and where women entrepreneurs are innovating in Canada. We knew from our previous study, A Force to Reckon With: Women, Entrepreneurship and Risk, that women entrepreneurs are ambitious and want to grow their businesses. Yet there was little information with respect to women entrepreneurs’ innovation and what the factors are that impact their ability to be innovative. After an extensive literature review we realized the insights were limited and would benefit from qualitative interviews that seek to understand the lived reality of women entrepreneurs relating to innovation. Facing overwhelming interest, we interviewed 146 women entrepreneurs throughout Canada, in all sectors and all stages of business from startup to multimillion-dollar businesses, including Indigenous women entrepreneurs who have not received a lot of attention in the literature. Those interviews showed us that women entrepreneurs are innovating in all sectors and in every aspect of their business and are very aware of the constant need to innovate to stay competitive and grow.
From the interviews, we found that innovations of women entrepreneurs are often inhibited by lack of access to capital for startup and growth, ageism (as women tend to start a business in a later stage of their life and age out of funding programs) and sexism and harassment from investors and clients. Funding opportunities do not always match women entrepreneurs’ goals as they were not available in their sectors or would not take into account their desire to help their community by promoting local products, for instance. Collaboration and partnerships are also key elements for women entrepreneurs. Mainstream networks, incubators and accelerators are often not welcoming to women entrepreneurs, yet networks, mentoring and growth opportunities are considered to be important to entrepreneurial success.
As for Indigenous women entrepreneurs, the literature is not abundant. In the interviews, we found that Indigenous women entrepreneurs are also innovating in all aspects of their businesses. They view collaboration as essential and want to support their communities. Indigenous women entrepreneurs face the same challenges as all women entrepreneurs with the additional burdens of prejudice, possible lack of support from their family and community, lack of role models, often more child and family responsibilities, lack of business training and lack of access to high-speed internet on more isolated reserves.
Governments, cities and financial institutions have both the opportunity and responsibility to include and support women entrepreneurs by developing inclusive innovation policy and programs that enable all innovation, no matter what sector, to be supported and recognized. Women must be involved from design to implementation to ensure their perspectives and experiences shape the policy and programs to be inclusive to all. While there is a very important focus on encouraging women to enter the STEM fields and technology and supporting advances in technology and sciences, recognizing and valuing women’s innovation in all areas is equally vital. Canada needs an innovative society, which can be fostered through recognition and support of innovators in all sectors. A number of recommendations are offered to build a truly inclusive innovation strategy that embraces innovation in all sectors, not only those involving new technologies.
Clare Beckton BA, LLB, MPA
Janice McDonald BA, MA, ICD.D, MFA
Maude Marquis-Bissonnette MPA, PhD candidate